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Reclaiming Labor History: How Domestic Workers Resisted Racism in the ’60s and ’70s

Premilla Nadasen discusses how Black women domestic workers organized for better pay and conditions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Participants, some carrying American flags, marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Many domestic worker activists got their political start in the civil rights movement. (Photo: Peter Pettus / Library of Congress)

Part of the Series

Dismissed by mainstream white-dominated labor unions as “unorganizable,” Black American domestic workers were forced to develop unique strategies in the 1960s and 1970s for social change. Household Workers Unite offers new perspectives on race, labor, feminism, and organizing by giving voice to the Black women whose dedicated struggle for higher wages, better working conditions and respect on the job created a sustained political movement that endures today. Get your copy of this crucial book by clicking here to make a donation to Truthout!

The following is a Truthout interview with Premilla Nadasen about her new book, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement.

Mark Karlin: You state that your book “offers an incredibly powerful, little-known story about working-class African-American women told through their own words.” Why are their voices so important?

Premilla Nadasen: The story of household labor is often one of victimization. We frequently hear about the exploitation and abuse of household workers. It’s not uncommon to pick up a newspaper and read about another domestic worker who has been mistreated or kept as a virtual slave. In these recountings of the occupation, the voices of domestic workers are muted and they are the object of our pity. We rarely get a chance to hear what they think, what they feel about their labor, their hopes and dreams. This story offers a different lens.

The African-American women at the center of my book organized a nationwide movement to challenge the basic contours of the occupation. They testified, they lobbied, they shared their stories, they wrote codes of conduct and they worked to educate employers. This is an example of an especially marginalized group of people who were deeply engaged in social reform and were able to shape their lives. They sought to bring dignity and respect to this occupation and aided in the passage of legislation that brought domestic labor under federal minimum wage protection after nearly 40 years of exclusion. How they achieved so much with so little is quite phenomenal.

Why does history remember so little about the activism and impact of African-American domestic workers who organized for better treatment, pay and respect in the ’50s and ’60s of the last century?

Premilla Nadasen (Photo: Beacon Press)Premilla Nadasen (Photo: Beacon Press)Historical narratives are shaped to a large degree by the available archival information. So, those people who kept papers, who wrote memoirs or who had access to media outlets dominate the historical record. People with little political clout and limited writing skills are often left out of the narrative. Marginalization in the archive, however, is not reflective of one’s significance, as this movement so clearly demonstrates.

In addition, conceptual categories can be exclusionary or circumscribe our frame of reference. Feminism, for example, is often equated with the struggle of white middle-class women to enter the labor force, and this, of course, establishes boundaries about who is included in that framework. Although domestic workers were struggling for dignity and protections for women workers, they have not been considered a part of the larger women’s movement.

How do you characterize a domestic worker’s position and can you amplify how it exemplifies an unequal power structure?

Domestic work is often not considered legitimate work. Domestic workers labor in the ostensibly private space of the home, but the home has historically not been considered a site of work. They cook, clean and care – work that many people do for no pay for their own families out of love. This, as well as the fact that the vast majority of paid workers are women of color, devalues domestic work. The location of the work also makes it difficult to enforce labor regulations. In addition, because they usually work as isolated employees, they are easily replaceable. All of these factors enable employers to set the terms for employment and wield enormous power to hire, fire and shape the day-to-day requirements of the job.

In 1950, 42 percent of employed Black women were domestic workers. That’s an astonishing figure. That figure fell to 6 percent by 1980. What were the factors behind that change?

African-American women were confined to domestic work because of racial barriers that limited their access to other kinds of jobs. Even African-American women who were trained as teachers or nurses sometimes ended up doing domestic work. In many ways, domestic labor was synonymous with African-American women and the racialized conceptions of the “mammy” – a stereotype that dominated the occupation during the first half of the 20th century. The primary reason for the declining percentage of African-American women in household labor was the dismantling of Jim Crow legislation in the 1960s and 1970s that opened up more occupational opportunities for Black women. African-American women were especially eager to exit domestic work because of its racialized history and longstanding association with the culture of servitude. The women who organized, however, had a different perspective. Rather than escape the occupation, they wanted to raise the standards.

How did the civil rights movement and the domestic workers’ movement become synergistic?

Many domestic worker activists got their political start in the civil rights movement. For example, I write about Dorothy Bolden who worked with Martin Luther King and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to desegregate schools in Atlanta prior to organizing domestic workers. In Cleveland, Geraldine Roberts developed close alliances with Black Power activists. These organizers came to see domestic work as part of the longer history of racial exploitation and injustice. They spoke about the ways racial inequality manifested and was constructed in the home – when employers required that they use separate bathrooms or eat leftover food. Those daily practices became part of how racial differences were made and remade. So, the civil rights movement and the domestic workers’ movement grew from the same fertile ground. I think that the image of a domestic worker using a separate bathroom in her employer’s home should be as symbolically powerful in thinking about civil rights activism as the segregated lunch counter.

You remark in the book that although these activists worked for low pay and most often demeaning positions that you found “enormous hope.” How so?

The women I write about overcame huge obstacles – limited education, poverty and possible retaliation from employers – and they rarely had access to influential people or mainstream media or financial resources. They also faced social isolation and stigma. For many people, being a domestic worker was not something to be proud of. Yet, they managed to develop a powerful national movement of women who embraced an identity as domestic workers and spoke out about the hardships of this occupation. The very act of speaking out became a form of defiance. Their courage and commitment give me hope.

Take Mary McClendon in Detroit, for example. McClendon ran the Household Workers’ Organization out of her kitchen and relied mostly on volunteer labor. She was born in Alabama and began domestic work at a young age. As an organizer she talked about the contradictions of citizenship – how African Americans were expected to serve and die in Vietnam, but didn’t have the same legal protections at home. Despite the multiple barriers, domestic workers like McClendon offered insightful social and political critiques of citizenship, labor and feminism.

Isn’t it particularly difficult to organize workers who by the nature of their work are isolated and not working with other employees in the same setting?

It’s very difficult. Domestic workers couldn’t trade stories on the factory line or commiserate in the break room. It was even hard to locate workers because it was not always clear which households employed them. This geographical reality required thinking outside the box. For domestic workers public spaces became the primary site of organizing. Dorothy Bolden in Atlanta rode the city buses handing out leaflets to household workers as they went to and from work. Carolyn Reed, an activist in New York City, sought out domestic workers in the laundry rooms of apartment buildings. Household workers moved the site of labor organizing from the shop floor to the public sphere. And because they were organizing workers through the community and not according to specific employers, their demands often incorporated broader state-based legislation, not only employer-negotiated benefits. And this approach offered protection to a broader swath of workers, not only those who were organized.

Why did the mainstream unions generally ignore domestic workers until recently? What have been some of the alternative organizations advocating on behalf of domestic workers that have developed over the years?

Domestic workers were usually considered “unorganizable” by the mainstream labor movement, whose model was premised on the male industrial worker. It was hard to organize domestic workers because they were dispersed and may have had more than one employer. Despite this, there has been a long history of domestic worker organizing. Tera Hunter has written about African-American washer women in Atlanta who organized a citywide strike in 1881. In the early 20th century there were some domestic worker groups that emerged, although we don’t know a lot about them. And then in the 1930s, there was another upsurge of domestic worker organizing. The postwar period that I write about saw the first national movement of domestic worker organizing. More recently, in the 21st century, we again see household worker mobilization. Belying conventional labor wisdom, this history illustrates that there have been multiple forms of resistance by household workers, including collective organizing and the formation of union-like structures.

Can you explain the history of the Fair Labor Standards Act in relation to domestic workers?

Domestic workers were excluded from the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act when it was passed in 1938. In the context of the Great Depression, politicians and policy makers had come to believe that a social safety net was essential to bring the country out of the depression and for the long-term success of capitalism. They ushered in legislation such as the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which assured many workers the right to federal social security, the right to organize and bargain collectively and the right to a minimum wage.

Domestic work, along with some other occupations, was excluded in large part because Southern congressmen didn’t want African-American workers to have these kinds of protections. For them, a vulnerable worker was the ideal worker. But through agitation and reform, domestic workers did eventually win most of these rights, including the right to minimum wage under the FLSA in 1974. Domestic worker activists were critical to the passage of this legislation by testifying before Congress and maintaining a powerful public presence.

What can we learn from these tireless organizers for pride, respect, dignity and fair pay more than a half-century ago?

There are two takeaways from this movement. First, workers today who labor in similar conditions of economic insecurity, lack of labor protections, part-time and temporary work, can learn from the innovative organizing strategies of domestic workers. That is, organizing by household workers offers some lessons on how to organize workers who are relatively isolated, who change employers frequently, who are considered “independent contractors” or who have been overlooked by mainstream unions.

Second, is the need to revalue the labor of social reproduction – the work that takes place in the home that has been associated with women’s unpaid labor. The service sector is one of the fastest growing sectors of the American labor force. We have seen an expansion of jobs in health care, restaurant work, personal care and domestic work, occupations filled largely by women and people of color. We need to acknowledge the significance of the caring and cleaning industries in the economy today and recognize the value of this work as indispensable for sustaining so many American families. As Domestic Workers United, a contemporary group in New York City put it, “It is the work that makes all other work possible.”

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